For Christians, the journey from Palm Sunday to Easter constitutes the holiest week of the year. In the midst of the aesthetic onslaught being waged by Catholics against Protestants in the counter-reformation, Victoria made a mighty musical statement in his Officium Hebdomadae Sanctae (Office of Holy Week) of 1585, providing 37 settings of texts used in the intricate and richly symbolic rituals of that week.
This collection continues to be one of Victoria’s most enduring creations; many of the works still being popular with today’s liturgical choirs. Jordi Savall came under the spell of this music as a boy chorister in his native Catalonia, and in a remarkable homage, he together with his vocal and instrumental forces performed and recorded the entire collection in a series of concerts at Salzburg’s Kolliegienkirche in July 2018.
In addition to preserving some of the chant that would have surrounded Victoria’s polyphony, Savall also decided to accommodate his consort of viols by interleaving instrumental transcriptions of some of the music, as well as providing varying levels of instrumental accompaniment for the vocal items. While, as Savall argues, there is historical evidence of accompanied polyphony in Spain during Victoria’s lifetime, it seems less likely that this practice would have been condoned during Holy Week, when there was a specific and universal ban against the use of instruments.
Putting aside questions of historical and liturgical orthodoxy, Savall and his collaborators provide a warm, contemplative space in which to ponder Victoria’s enormously skilful and often vividly dramatic meditations on Jesus’ betrayal and death.
Victoria provided several distinct groups of music within the Officium. The two most numerous relate to the service of Tenebrae, so named because it was celebrated in increasing darkness. Settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, together with responsories (motets with repeated sections) were sung by the light of a triangular candlestick with 15 candles that were gradually extinguished. A lone, lighted candle was then hidden while a loud noise was made (symbolic of the earthquake at the resurrection) before being reinstated.
Savall’s singers evoke all the desolation of a ransacked Jerusalem in the Lamentations, with the recurring final invocation to “return to the Lord your God” increasing in intensity; the underpinning of the viols adding an appropriate gravitas. The responsories, such as O Vos Omnes and Tenebrae Factae Sunt, contain some of Victoria’s most famous and keenly felt music. Here, the singers often profitably dig into the confronting, malevolent textual imagery. Given there are 18 responsories, these could have accommodated a wider variety of overall pace to allow subtler musical and expressive details to emerge.
In both Passion settings (St Matthew for Palm Sunday and St John for Good Friday), Victoria’s short choral interjections sharpen the drama vividly narrated by cantor Andrés Montilla-Acurero.
Victoria’s extraordinary music has engaged the finest musical minds of successive generations, from George Malcolm’s ground-breaking recordings of the Tenebrae Responsories in the middle of last century to the historically informed labours of Australian ex-patriate scholar Michael Noone in our own day.
Savall’s distinctive approach adds another welcome layer of engagement with these timeless masterpieces, tracing a trajectory of triumph to tragedy, through Pueri Haebraeorum for Palm Sunday to Vere languores and Popule meus for Good Friday, in that divine but also acutely human drama of Holy Week.
Works: Officium Hebdomadae Sanctae
Performers: La Capella Reial de Catalunya, Hespèrion XXI, Jordi Savall
Label: Alia Vox AVSA9943